Last week, EU voters went to the polls in the latest round of the project of pan-European governance, another step on the supposed road to further unity and prosperity. The results were varied and at odds with one another, and the only constant seems to be dissatisfaction with the status quo. Many nationalist parties—such as in Poland, Italy and the United Kingdom—posted strong results, while countries such as Spain went toward the opposite end of the spectrum and supported socialists. Traditionally strong centrist groups suffered reverses. Environmentalist parties rode something of a “green wave.” There are many competing visions for the future and, apparently, no widespread consensus for any of them.
I want to comment, though, by looking to the past. On August 21, 1849, famed author Victor Hugo gave a speech to an international peace conference assembled in Paris. His words—in many respects almost uncannily prescient—are worth quoting at length.
“A day will come when your arms will fall even from your hands! A day will come when war will seem as absurd and impossible between Paris and London, between Petersburg and Berlin, between Vienna and Turin, as it would be impossible and would seem absurd today between Rouen and Amiens, between Boston and Philadelphia. A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form the European brotherhood, just as Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, all our provinces are merged together in France. A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples, by the venerable arbitration of a great sovereign senate which will be to Europe what this parliament is to England, what this diet is to Germany, what this legislative assembly is to France.”
There are of course errors in some details—for instance, on Russia’s inclusion in the hypothetical future union—but by and large Hugo seems to offer a fairly accurate prediction of things to come. On one central point, though, the jury is still out: “You all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form the European brotherhood.” The line nags at me, and the widespread emergence of nationalist parties is evidence that it is a growing concern for many Europeans as well. They aren’t sure that such a close union is possible without jeopardizing their “distinct qualities” and “glorious individuality.” And even more so, they (reasonably) resent the loss of their sovereignty and self-determination. Those who have talked of setting up some sort of “United States of Europe” don’t take sufficient account of the legitimate historical and cultural peculiarities of each country, and the comparison with the United States is imperfect at best. Individual states have far more in common—culturally, historically, linguistically, and so on—than the nations of Europe do. European countries aren’t like US states and people get restless when bureaucrats try to treat them that way.
In recent years, claims that the “American dream” is no longer a reality have become increasingly common. Is there such a thing as a “European dream,” as Jeremy Rifkin put it? I think it’s fair to say so, though there are competing versions of this “dream.” The difference between Europhiles and Euroskeptics is that the former have a “European dream” that identifies with the EU, while the latter think that that dream snuffs out their “French dream” or “Italian dream” or whatever it may be. Is the “European dream” no longer a reality?
Both sides of the debate tend to diminish the good, and exaggerate the bad, on the other side. Europhiles rarely acknowledge the loss of sovereignty, have trouble distinguishing between a healthy national pride and “fascism,” and tend to demonize their opponents as racist or xenophobic rather than offering an honest assessment of their concerns. Euroskeptics often fail to acknowledge the unprecedentedness of the peace we have seen since WWII, and at times place knee-jerk blame on the EU for everything that goes wrong in Europe. That said, I lean toward the latter myself. Not that I’m in favor of wholesale abolition of the EU, but there is a need for some measure of decentralization and acknowledgement of national sovereignty and character. Nationalism has many definitions depending on who you ask, but it doesn’t have to be the uniformly negative force that many make it out to be. Obviously it can be taken too far, but then again what can’t?
On the other hand, it is undeniable that the nations of Europe, despite their endless squabbles, are part of a larger whole that goes beyond politics, and they considered themselves as such long before this whole became a political reality. Derek Wilson’s biography of Charlemagne puts it thus: “Several nations did arise, as we know, frequently warring with each other and jockeying for supremacy, but always their rivalries were expressed within the framework of a common culture. It is this tension—this sense of belonging to a family, however quarrelsome and, at times, dysfunctional—that has given Europe a unique and powerful position in the world.”
This also relates to the problematic identification of “Europe” with the European Union, as some today (such as Katrin Bennhold, in a New York Times article leading up to last week’s elections) seem to do. They equate them as though driving from an EU state into Norway, Ukraine or Switzerland puts you in a completely different world. Politically, maybe it does. But culturally and historically it really doesn’t. This sharp differentiation based only on political and economic contingencies is one that needs to be rethought. The competing tendencies need to be harmonized—Europe has a unity that existed prior to, and is certainly not dependent on, any modern political project; and its members have differences which any such project is unwise to try to sweep aside or gloss over.
The EU has become, in part at least, an attempt to salvage, from a secular perspective, the sense of European unity that has been lost with the widespread rejection of the continent’s common cultural and religious heritage. In this sense it is possible to say that there has been a shift over time in the perceived purpose of the European Union. It certainly has its share of economic and political woes, but its fundamental shortcoming may be a cultural one. Begun as a union for political and economic cooperation and to be a vehicle of peace, it has come to be seen as a surrogate for the unifying power of Europe’s cultural and religious heritage, rejected after the upheavals of the world wars. This heritage—as evidenced by debates in the preparation of the EU Constitution, later repackaged as the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon—has been replaced with feel-good references to human rights and dignity, which, valid as they are, have been philosophically hollowed out. Europe is indeed more than the EU, and the union, whether it dies or stumbles onward, has to recognize its own limits and the foundations on which it stands. Without that recognition its grand vision, its “European dream,” will forever fall short.
(Photo credit: János Korom Dr. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)